SHRM Chicago 2: Inspiring a Workforce, 1 Pair of Shoes at a Time

One thing you learn pretty quickly after attending a few SHRM annual conferences is this: the inspirational speakers usually appear near the end of things, usually on Day 3 and 4.

As so many things going on here at SHRM 2013 in Chicago, that’s not the case this year.

Keynote speaker Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms Shoes, moved the conference’s inspirational quotient up a few notches by relating the story of how he accidentally became, A) an entrepreneur; and, B) a philanthropist who figured out that weaving charitable giving into a business model is a recipe for success.

How Tom’s shoe giving started

Rather than replay his entire career, here is the essence of what Mycoskie has accomplished, as detailed in his bio on the TOMS website:

Blake Mycoskie is the Founder and Chief Shoe Giver of TOMS, and the person behind the idea of One for One, which has turned into a global movement. TOMS has given over 2 million pairs of new shoes to children in need since it began in 2006. The company also recently expanded its unique business model to include TOMS Eyewear, helping to save and restore sight for those in need.

TOMS humble beginnings happened unintentionally. While traveling in Argentina in 2006, Blake witnessed the hardships faced by children growing up without shoes. His solution to the problem was simple, yet revolutionary: to create a for-profit business that was sustainable and not reliant on donations. Blake’s vision soon turned into the simple business idea that provided the powerful foundation for TOMS.

Over the course of its first five years, TOMS was successful enough in providing shoes for children in need. But Blake, having recognized other vital needs during his travels around the world, realized that One for One could be applied to more than shoes. He developed the idea for TOMS Eyewear in which for every pair of eyewear purchased, TOMS would help give sight to a person in need. One for One. …”

3 lessons from Toms Shoes

Mycoskie says that he  “started Toms as a spontaneous response to giving shoes, because giving feels good. But, it is also good for business as well.” And, he has these three lessons he’s learned from all of it:

  1. Customers become your greatest marketers. He related the story of the first time he ever saw a customer wearing Tom’s Shoes, while checking in for a flight at the American Airlines terminal at JFK Airport. When he asked the woman about the shoes, and eventually, told her who he was, she got so excited — and loud — that she drew a crowd.
  2. Tom’s attracted a workforce of great people because they really wanted to make their job count.  He says, When your employees are proud (of what they do), they will work harder than anyone else on the planet.”
  3. Every business needs great partners to be successful. And giving is good for business because it attracts great partners. Mycoskie talked about some of the partners who reached out to Tom’s simply because they wanted to be involved with a company that did so much giving — companies like Ralph Lauren and AT&T. This is more proof, he says, that giving is a great business model.

He also noted that, as of this week, Toms has given away 10 million pairs of shoes, and he’s now engaged in giving away eyewear in much the same manner.

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A story that’s hard to beat

Is this an inspiring story, or what? And although I had not really heard of him, I vaguely recall Mycoskie from the TV reality show The Amazing Race. He finished third with his sister during the show’s second season back in 2002, just missing the show’s $1 million top prize by 4 minutes.

But even though he didn’t win the race, it was a leg of the competition that took Mycoksie to Argentina that exposed him to the plight of children without shoes, and, it inspired him to start Toms Shoes with its unique business model that also helps to change lives.

This is a story that’s pretty hard to top, and, it is a great lesson for anyone who has a dream and doesn’t quite know how to get started to really make it happen. Mycoskie’s story is one of a person who succeeded almost in spite of his lack of knowledge about what he was doing. But, that’s what can happen when you’re driven by a larger, philanthropic goal.

I know there will be more inspiring stories here this week at SHRM Chicago. This one from Blake Mycoskie was a good one to get things started.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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